The “Business of Brooklyn” debuted last week in Brooklyn Heights. The exhibition is broken up into six sections focusing on the building blocks of commerce, big corporations that emerged from the borough, mom-and-pop shops, and the landscape of the Brooklyn business community today.
It showcases artifacts, historic items and images of some of the most notable companies that operated in Brooklyn, such as Domino Sugar, Schaefer Beer and Squibb Pharmaceuticals.
The exhibit, which runs through 2018, coincides with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, which worked with BHS on the show.
Chamber president and CEO Andrew Hoan said the exhibition demonstrates that, like the rest of the borough at large, Brooklyn businesses have had their ups and downs.
“It’s a story of struggle, a story of hard work, the immigrant story,” Hoan said. “It’s a story of people who have been here a long time and people who are coming here that are new. It simply mirrors the story of Brooklyn.”
“Business of Brooklyn” also serves as a teaching tool for business leaders today. Hoan said compared to the dire economic outlook in the borough decades ago, today’s Brooklyn is in a “very privileged position.”
“It was a borough that was emptying out, it was a borough whose economy was declining,” he said. “It was a borough that wasn’t safe. Those are not things we ever want to return to.”
The lesson he drew that was while Brooklyn is enjoying continued population and job growth today, it’s important to stay vigilant for what’s ahead.
“We have to make sure that in the good times, we’re preparing for the bad,” Hoan said. “They’ll come, that’s just life.”
Last Thursday, the chamber and BHS marked the opening of “Business of Brooklyn” by organizing a historic lesson of their own. They brought together the current and two prior Brooklyn borough presidents, who discussed the past, present and future of Brooklyn businesses.
Howard Golden, who served in the role for 24 years from 1977 to 2001, recalled that the borough was treated as “second-class” compared to Manhattan.
“Jobs were hard to get,” he said. “For two decades, things were very tight in Brooklyn.”
Under Golden’s tenure, Downtown Brooklyn began its transformation into a hub for office space. Even the first Marriott hotel was built in a lot that was infested with drugs and crime.
The former borough president touted the investments in parks, cultural institutions and other aspects of Brooklyn under his watch that continue to grow today.
Marty Markowitz took over the role from 2002 until 2013, a decade that saw Brooklyn emerge as a cultural, housing and economic destination. Part of that change came from the 2005 rezoning of north Brooklyn, turning Greenpoint and Williamsburg from industrial neighborhoods into a mixed-use, residential center.
Markowitz told the story of walking down Kent Avenue one day in 2010 when he saw two buses full of Japanese tourists pull up. The tourist group even had a guide that showed them around Williamsburg.
“I stood back and said, ‘wow, this is unbelievable,’” he said.
The former borough president said he knew he had a “gem” in Brooklyn. The creative community was growing, the “techies” were moving in and the borough still boasted its signature diversity. Markowitz decided to brand Brooklyn and let the world know what the borough has to offer.
“We built the brand of Brooklyn, then decided to generate throughout America why young people should be here, why businesses should be here,” he said. “I felt my job was to try to attract businesses to Brooklyn.”
Markowitz also oversaw the eventual opening of the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets and the departing New York Islanders. Growing up with the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team and watching them leave for Los Angeles, Markowitz said he wanted a sporting area and venue.
“I knew the sport for Brooklyn was basketball,” he said.
Borough President Eric Adams, who is now in his second term in office, said he had a different view of the borough during the downtrodden years. He was a police officer and saw “the despair” during the high-crime and drug years.
“I saw the belief that there was no possibility of tomorrow,” he said.
But under the foundation built by Golden, and the energy and spirit of Markowitz, Brooklyn became a popular borough. Inheriting the current business climate, Adams sees his role as transforming the borough’s success into prosperity for every Brooklynite.
To do that, the borough president said Brooklyn must embrace its diversity and welcome, rather than demonize, change.
“Brooklyn is going to evolve and change,” he said. “What we must do is to make sure we do not forcefully move out people, but allow the natural transitions of the community.”
He pointed to several examples of neighborhoods that have welcomed new ethnic groups. Sunset Park, which has one of the country’s largest Chinese communities, used to be a home for Puerto Ricans. Bay Ridge now has a strong Yemeni community, and Coney Island has become a hub for Pakistani Americans.
“Even Greenpoint has a new ethnic group, the hipsters,” Adams said. “That’s the beauty of what we have to offer. That is what we are and who we are.
“It is so clear how great we are doing as a borough,” he added. “Everyone must see a pathway to the success.”
For Hoan, the discussion that kicked off the exhibition was an important part of the show’s mission.
“Having the three borough presidents, 41 years of economic, business and cultural history, that was as meaningful as the objects and stories that are in the exhibit,” he said.